Japanese whisky and war (I)

Jurassic Period // Unlocking Scotland I // Unlocking Scotland II //Whisky and war// Whisky and war II // Pioneer of Single Malts // Kumaso scandal

"The last moments of Admiral Yamaguchi" by Kita Renzo
Whisky has become part of Japanese culture, just as it has been imported and then incorporated into American and English culture. It has stood for many things through its more than century long dalliance with the country, transforming itself from a profoundly alien and exotic import in the early years of Japan's modernisation to a sophisticated symbol of an internationalist new order in the whisky boom that coincided with Japan's extraordinary growth from the 1960s onwards.

I am not sure if has quite found its new meaning in 21st century Japan. Will it be a slightly fusty throwback to the boom years, or a cheap monstrously plastic-bottled reminder of the recession of the 90s and early naughties, or a highly differentiated product for a well informed new generation? Maybe it will be all these things. There is one part of Japanese whisky's cultural history that is missing from the story, however. It is not usually explored very deeply, for understandable reasons: the link with WWII militarism.

A Japanese naval officer's whisky glass from the 1930/40s

The Imperial Japanese armed forces drank whisky in massive quantities in the 1930s and 40s. In the Imperial Navy, it had a place similar to that of rum in the British Navy. As conflict removed any possibility of importing the drink, Japanese whisky producers were tasked with slaking this thirst. They were given military supplier status and therefore priority access to fuel, barley and other necessities. Indeed, the Yoichi distillery was designated by the Imperial Navy as a naval installation. I don't know to what extent the distilleries were used for other purposes such as fuel alcohol production, but whisky was produced and it is fair to say that whisky and the armed forces were pretty much synonymous in this period.

This observation is not intended as a slight to Japanese whisky companies. Almost all businesses that survived World War II, on either side of the conflict, were in some way bound up with total war. I was talking with the whisky writer Dave Broom last night about this and he observed that Scottish distilleries were harnessed to the British war effort.

So why am I bringing it up? Simply because the Japanese whisky industry would probably not exist on the same scale as it does now without its military link. To understand the significance of getting "priority access to fuel, barley and other necessities", you need to know that in the latter part of WWII Japanese people were eating weeds. There is no way a luxury item like whisky would have been permitted to keep going without its military patronage.

The second largest producer, Nikka, was in a particularly vulnerable situation as the drums of war began beating. Their Yoichi plant had only started distilling in the mid 1930s and, almost immediately, Japan got itself embroiled in war. Whisky enterprises are always vulnerable in their first few years, as they seek to establish markets and age their product. Take a look at these profit and loss figures for Nikka:

1934 8,970 yen loss
1935 51,305 yen loss
1936 37,138 yen loss
1937 58,500 yen loss
1938 19,694 yen loss
1939 198, 514 yen profit after tax
1940 66,662 yen profit after tax
1941 63,744 yen profit after tax
1942 43,541 yen profit after tax
1943 67,905 yen profit after tax
1944 78,072 yen profit after tax
1945 103,106 yen profit after tax

The Pacific War with the Allies started in 1941 but Japan's war really began in 1937, when fighting started in earnest with China. What would have happened to Nikka if the Japanese military had been drinking shochu or schnapps? We are in the realms of alternative history here. No war at all, of course, and Taketsuru's company might have experienced sales like those in 1950, when they made 10,000,000 yen after tax, but, all else being equal, we can hazard that Nikka's total sales would not have quadrupled in value between 1940 and 1945 without all those officers' toasts. I don't have the figures for Suntory but their main Kakubin brand was also initially founded on military demand, which of course makes it particularly fitting that a Taiwanese company is copying it with a brand called War.

1943 Suntory label
with naval markings

"Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi" comes from this website. Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi ordered the crew of the stricken Hiryu to abandon ship during the Battle of Midway but stayed on board with its captain Tomeo Kaku. Before their shipmates left them, there was a toast to the strength of the Japanese Navy (in this case in water, I believe) and then Yamaguchi is reported to have turned to Kaku and said: "There is such a beautiful moon tonight. Shall we watch it as we sink?"
The whisky glass, marked with pre-war Imperial Navy insignia, was recently auctioned. It is believed to date from the early Showa period and sold for about £100.
The Suntory label is from this website.
The statement that Yoichi was a naval installation is from Masataka Takesuru's autobiography "Whisky to Watashi" (1972) and the profit and loss figures are based on "Dai Nihon Kaju", Statement of Profit and Loss, 1934-88.
I used Olive Checkland's "Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend" as a source for this post, although she does not make this argument. Other material was from "The Rising Sun - The decline and fall of the Japanese Empire 1936 -1945" by John Toland (Penguin, 2001)


Anonymous said…
Here's a story where we can draw similar parallels. One of our old family friend told this many years ago. He came from a wealthy family that produced chinese rice liquir back in the in the 30's and 40's during the war when most businesses went bust the liquor business boomed.


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